I had expected to find the Musses Hurlbird excessively old – in the nineties of thereabouts. The time had passed so slowly that I had the impression that it must have been thirty years since I had been in the United States. It was only twelve years. Actually Miss Hurlbird was just sixty-one and Miss Florence Hurlbird fifty-nine, and they were both, mentally and physically, as vigorous as could be desired. They were, indeed, more vigorous, mentally, than suited my purpose, which was to get away from the United States as quickly as I could. The Hurlbirds were an exceedingly united family – exceedingly united except on one set of points. Each of the three of them had a separate doctor, whom they trusted implicitly – and each had a separate attorney. And each of them distrusted the other’s doctor and the other’s attorney. And, naturally, the doctors and the attorneys warned one all the time – against each other. You cannot imagine how complicated it all became for me.
It happened that the Ashburnhams had never seen any of the Powys girls, though whenever the four parents met in London, Edward Ashburnham was always of the party. He was at that time twenty-two and, I believe, almost in pure in mind as Leonora herself. It is odd how a boy can have his virgin intelligence untouched in this world.
That was partly due to the careful handling of his mother, partly due to the fact that the house to which he went at Winchester had a particularly pure tone and partly to Edward’s own peculiar aversion from anything like coarse language or gross stories. At Sandhurst he had just kept out of the way of that sort of thing. He was keen on soldiering, keen on mathematics, on land-surveying, on politics and, by a queer warp of his mind, on literature. Even when he was twenty-two he would pass hours reading one of Scott’s novels or the chronicles of Froissart.
Mrs Ashburnham considered that she was to be congratulated, and almost every week she wrote to Mrs Powys, dilating upon her satisfaction.
Then, one day, taking a walk down Bond Street with her son, after having been at Lord’s, she noticed Edward suddenly turn his head round to take a second look at a well-dressed girl who had passed them. She wrote about that, too, to Mrs Powys, and expressed some alarm. It had been, on Edward’s part, the merest reflex action. He was so very abstracted at that time owing to the pressure his crammer was putting on him that he certainly hadn’t known what he was doing.